This exhibition isn’t about the evils of trash; we all know that trash is wasteful (literally) and is engulfing the earth. No—these are merely drawings of large, sculptural forms with small, detailed components.
Out of context, trash bags are scale-free. Imagine their magnificence if reproduced 50 feet tall at Dia Beacon! The promontories, crevasses and cliffs would look positively geological. Scaled down, the bags seem as organic as ourselves—assorted structures squashed inside a stretchy membrane. Scale down again and the components become precious gifts, jewels, or the mechanisms of expensive watches.
These drawings began during the pandemic as I saw the uncollected trash piling up on the streets of Brooklyn. When the homeless arrived I included them, and found this made people uneasy. What was my angle? I had none, I was just drawing them; but this, I realize, will no longer do. Now that we’re more aware of human rights, we need to question whether people should be treated as aesthetic objects. For instance, is street photography still acceptable?
These works provoke cognitive dissonance by combining two highly charged themes, waste and homelessness, without any message. My subject became the gap between the artist and the viewer, the artwork and the interpretations the viewer might take from it.
THE APPROPRIATION OF A STRANGER’S IMAGE
Dana Schutz’s notorious portrait of the murdered boy Emmett Till creates huge cognitive dissonance. The viewer’s initial reaction is pleasure at its beauty, followed by a shock of recognition—then follows a moral response. Even though the work comes from a place of caring, it’s problematic to appropriate the image of a dead child. Schutz’s offense might seem less if she were disadvantaged, or of another ethnicity, because compassion from a white person can come off as condescension. The moral spectrum is blurred, and it’s not just the intention of the artist that matters, but what is perceived to be her relative social standing.
In this exhibition, piles of trash surround a homeless person who is lying on a park bench. This image may jolt the viewer into moral attention; the artist could be saying that homeless people are trash, or she might be drawing attention to their plight. In either case, she could be exploiting them to further her artistic career.
Perhaps she’s just looking for trouble, because she could have called the exhibition ‘On the Street’.
MORAL JUDGEMENT COMES IN ALL SHAPES AND SIZES
“Those poor people with nowhere to live—when are the authorities going to help them? And they defecate on my doorstep!”
Outraged San Francisco home-owner
“Worthless fucking bum!”
Man on bicycle seeing me photograph a homeless man. (Aimed at him or me?)
‘’Homeless people choose to be homeless, because they’re lazy and like to collect the benefits”.
Lady in L.I. Retirement Community
Due to the way perception works, there’s a gap between what the artist sends out and how it is received—the gap between form and content. When we react to a work of art, this is the cognitive sequence:
1. The brain identifies and categorizes what is seen, then…
2. … assesses its value
3. … experiences aesthetic appreciation
4. … assigns meaning and judgement
#2 is surprising, but studies using MRI imaging show a marked difference in appreciation when the viewer believes a painting to be fake. #4 adds interpretation, which may exist only for the viewer; there’s a tension between the aesthetic content of an artwork and its message, intentional or otherwise, and the artist/viewer connection may be illusory.
For centuries, content ruled. In the 20th century, representation made way for pure aesthetics, but after Me Too and Black Lives Matter the pendulum swung back. Now art doesn’t even need aesthetics any more—it can be all content and no form—and it takes a moral stance. A spotlight shines not only upon the intention of the artist, but upon his/her behavior, so that heroes of the Frankfurt School like Picasso are now coming into disrepute. The whole art machinery is shifting gear, and marginalized voices are finally heard. Sacrosanct ‘standards’ no longer apply. There’s a discussion in the philosophy of art in which ‘Autonomists’ claim that art and morality are separate; however, ‘Aesthetic Moralists’ argue that morality and art are interconnected, and any moral stain connected with a work makes it aesthetically flawed.
Art is a social connector, and the viewer likes to have a bond of sympathy with the artist. Tolstoy said— ‘Every work of art results in the one who receives it entering into a certain kind of communication with the one who produced it’. A recent study found that people prefer and can differentiate between Abstract Expressionist Art, and paintings by trained elephants. (How they’re trained is another issue). The researchers wanted to prove that conscious intent is important; they believe that connection with the mind of the artist, and with her message, matters.
Non-artists sometimes decipher abstract art with the help of titles, but paintings, like people, have names to identify them not to describe them; and a painting which should have been called ‘Bob’ may be christened ‘Mnemosyne’ to give it gravitas. The consumers are interested in any narrative the painting might have, the life story of the artist, and whatever emotion the painting might be supposed to evoke. For viewers, content is often more important than form. While they are enjoying the value they’ve added, does it even matter that it may not be what the artist thinks they should be appreciating? Perhaps this exhibition will speak for itself, telling volumes about alienation and waste while I’m at home messing about with color, shape and texture.
Art sanitizes suffering by taking it out of context. The Trolley Problems demonstrate that the more remote an issue is, the less responsibility we feel; similarly, The Plight of the Homeless is moved one step away in a photo, two steps away in a drawing, and three steps away in an exhibition—and any credit which the artist might hope to earn as a compassionate person can only be canceled by the pleasure she takes in the act of drawing.
Art is expressive in itself, and needn’t be emotive. Take the portrait of Durer’s mother at prayer. As Durer drew it, he might have thought— “This is my tribute to a frail old woman, the apotheosis of motherhood, who kneels here in simple piety; I must affirm my gratitude for her agony in giving birth, for her unconditional love, and for the many sacrifices she has made for me…”
But on the other hand he might have thought “Mother’s always available and doesn’t need paying. And her hands are so wonderfully wrinkly! “ Whistler, clearly on my side of the debate, called his mother’s portrait ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1’.
Great artists like Goya or William Kentridge make powerful work by combining fierce commitment to a cause with sublime aesthetic form; still, an aesthetic punch in the gut is enough in itself. A message may interfere with SEEING the work, diminishing its aesthetic power. Any docent holding forth about Rembrandt self-portraits— the dignity, the humility, the spiritual depth—should provoke the irritable reaction ‘Yes, but what about the PAINT?
PHILOSOPHY/ LIT CRIT
Terry Eagleton claims that poems are moral statements because they deal with human values, and he observes the paradox that poetry is about pleasure, while morality is in opposition to pleasure. This also applies to—qualities can hardly be enjoyed while moral alarm bells are ringing in the brain. In an exhibition called ‘Trash’, the category shift from garbage to people is disturbing because aesthetic response and indignation are contradictory. We’re already pushed by the homeless into an emotional tussle between compassion, fear and disgust. And now they’re turning up in an exhibition about trash! The brain equates good-looking with goodness, both processed by the orbital frontal cortex, which is perhaps why aesthetic response tangles with morality. To find out exactly how the brain processes art, we could ask the neuroscientists who study it—but they rarely distinguish between form and content, and regard a painting of a beautiful face as the same thing as a beautiful painting of a face. This distinction is crucial, and is of interest to philosophers.
In the 18th century, Kant wrote: ‘Form without content is empty; content without form is blind’. He believed that beauty is intrinsic to an object and is enjoyed through the intellect, while Hume believed beauty was enjoyed through feeling, and was what he called a matter of ‘taste’.
Modern Lit Crit applies to other arts, with the Structuralist terms ‘signifier’ as form, and ‘signified’ as content. Structuralists believe that these lose value when separated from each other, and they’re interested in how meaning is generated rather than meaning itself—a concern of this essay. Barthes talks of ‘jouissance’, believing that it is only when a reader sees the text from the writerly point of view (form) that the experience is blissful. In contrast, post-Structuralists find intended meaning secondary to perceived meaning. Reader-Response Theory goes the whole hog by asserting that it’s the transformation of the text by the reader’s interpretation which constitutes the work of art. In the Post-Modern world everything is fluid and contextual, and these later thinkers would say I cannot claim any ownership of essence, truth or form.
This tension between form and content pops up all over the arts. In music, form predominates. A Bach cantata may have added value if you understand German, but it’s so wonderful anyway, who cares? The opposite is the case with novels, where most readers aren’t interested in the ‘jouissance’ of the writing—for them the content, or story, is everything. It’s in the visual arts that we find the vacillating balance between the producer and the consumer.
Beauty is to be found at the intersection of order and chaos. Even in Old Master paintings straight lines are disrupted—for instance the line of a sword will be broken up with dashes of gleaming light. In trash, geometric cardboard shapes underlie spontaneous scrawls of string, and a rectangular mattress serves as canvas to the thin curvy lines of a plastic cover. As Kant might have said, ready-mades can be beautiful in themselves—which is to say, they have qualities which appeal to the human brain—and artistic intention isn’t necessary.
Seeing patterns in chaos is also why mathematicians find their subject beautiful, evolving as it did from our need to extract connections and symmetries when dealing with overwhelming amounts of information.
And it’s not just aesthetic pleasure that’s to be had in the discovery of ready-mades, there’s the satisfaction of choosing, because the exercise of free will is pleasurable in itself. Decades of research have found this to be so, even though free will is an illusion. Like a gambler or a girl shopping for a dress, we feel powerful when making choices. Perhaps curation is the process of making content into form, rather than the other way round.
CURATING SIDEWALK SCULPTURES
There’s a metabolic system in which Amazon vans feed the houses daily, so that, in due course, waste matter is expelled onto the street. This wasn’t too noticeable until the garbage collectors stayed away during Covid, and it began to pile up. The trash seemed yet another harbinger of doom, and I coped by finding beauty in it. Now the collectors are back I look for the best bags at dawn and photograph them while trying to outrun the trucks. Homeless people are asleep, and occasionally crop up in an imperceptible merging of trash and human. To switch focus to these discarded people is distressing—perhaps someone lost a job, or is an immigrant, or, worst of all, was abused and neglected as a child and never had any chance of happiness. The mentally ill seem to personify the world’s troubles, and photographing them is dangerous. ‘Don’t look them in the eye’ we’re told, and we avert our gaze just as we look away from the larger picture of poverty, misery, injustice and hunger.
I keep reality at bay by plucking order from chaos—as we all do, curating our lives by the choices we make of spouses, friends and furniture to inhabit our bubbles of niceness.
I bridge a gap when I talk with a homeless person. Previous feelings, including compassion, are gone in the humanity of ordinary conversation.
Artists make art and viewers make of it what they will. The unstable balance between artwork and reaction to artwork reflects the changing responses of liberal society to difficult times. Add to this the full spectrum of the general public’s attitudes to the homeless, and it would seem that we don’t even have a basic common morality.
Does this entire enquiry turn out to be about a sad fact of the human condition—the unlikeliness of any person or people ever understanding another?
CECI N’EST PAS UNE PIPE
The artist—in this case, myself—sends art into the world where the content fans out, making multiple meanings in different heads. The artist has no control over how the work is interpreted. As Hofstadter notes in ‘Godel, Escher, Bach’, systems can acquire meaningful context despite being made of meaningless elements.
I hereby state that these drawings are about nothing whatsoever except what trash (and the occasional homeless person) looks like. I resist all interpretations.
Although... in a Godelian irony, my statement that the drawings have no content—plus the preceding lengthy justification for that statement—have inevitably become the content.